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on 4 July 2014
I bought this book on Kindle after catching a glimpse of it in a book store, thinking it's mainly about the science in the Romantic period, but in fact, it's about the people involved in the science of the Romantic era.

As a series of short biographies, they are very well written, making the reader care about the lives of those people described. The main "protagonists" of the book are Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, and Humphrey Davy. It truly described a sense of wonder for anthropology, for astronomy, and for chemistry in the Romantic era. The author wrapped the book by writing about the "younger" scientists who would lead science into the Victorian era. However, the book lacked focus in places when it described the balloonists and Mungo Park. They seemed to have contribute nothing to science, and don't really fit into the whole picture. It's almost as if the author had written a book about scientists and another about the explorers, and the second book wasn't long enough so it was hastily stitched onto the first one.

There also seemed to be a missed opportunity to explore the life of Michael Faraday. He's mentioned in the book as Davy's protege, but never put in the main focus of the story. Faraday is a household name for scientists, and it's more likely that someone would have heard of his name rather than that of Banks, Herschel or Davy. It would be interesting to read an biographical account of him.

Another thing I didn't like about the book is that the author seemed to have assumed that the readers have read his other works. He wrote about poets such as Coleridge and Shelley without properly introducing them. Their names popped up casually and I was just left wondering about who they are (until I look them up on Wikipedia). A short paragraph introducing them before mentioning their names would have suffice. (A "cast list" was included at the end of the book, but it's troublesome flipping to the end every time you see a new name casually mentioned, especially on a Kindle.)

I would have given 4 stars for this book if not for the flaws in the Kindle version. When I flipped through this book in a book store, I saw some beautiful pictures which are missing in the Kindle version. The prologue and the epilogue are in annoyingly large fonts, which means I have to change the font size reading those part while changing it back reading the main texts. There are so many footnotes in this book, and they are annoying to read on my Kindle and are often misformatted in a small window.
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VINE VOICEon 1 February 2010
Richard Holmes' magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having read it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society's history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been fine be me, since that's easily one of my favourite periods).

It is instead a wonderful window into the relationship between science, the arts and the popular imagination and culture at a very important moment for the modern world. This makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn't put it down and eagerly anticipated the next 'aha' moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour with their's.

The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting sights on Tahiti, and ends in the 1840s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage. Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes' spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as the impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there's a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron. But a constant thread is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.

There are so many things one could say about the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:

It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the opes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)

Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge - especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraoridnary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people's sense of place in the universe - the cosmos was a place of awe and wonder. But notice the shift from Coleridge's more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley's polemical take:

"At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father's eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: `I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer's house, a mile from Ottery - & he told me the names of the stars - and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world - and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them - & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc - my mind had been habituated to the Vast.' (pp111-2)"
"Shelley used Herschel's vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other `fallen' worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, `His Works have borne witness against Him.' He wrote a particularly fierce note `On the Plurality of Worlds' in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation... It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman... The works of His fingers have borne witness against him... Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth... Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)"

But not everyone shared that view - or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:
"For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the `argument by Design,' there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of `natural' religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)"

Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible - which his why so many cosmologists and 'hard' scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.

But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book's most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science - the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God's thoughts after him, if you like. I was frequently transported to Royal Society lectures, or to the audience of Faraday's Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution, designed specifically to draw in non-scientists.

My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:
"Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay `On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy' (1980) that most histories of science continue to be `uninterrupted chronicles', which run along `handing out medals to those who "got it right"'. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a `creative human activity' which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context - Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.
First the `Newton syndrome', the notion of `scientific genius', in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
Second, the existence of the `Eureka moment', in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
Third, the `Frankenstein nightmare', in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)"

Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes' objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as `fundamentalist', as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.

There is SO much treasure in this book. But I end where Holmes does. I couldn't have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book - inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:
"The old, rigid debates and boundaries - science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics - are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)"
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on 19 October 2016
I have just started to read this book it is excellent so far
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 31 October 2015
Although C18 Romanticism grew as a reaction to the cold rationality of the Enlightenment, which reached the depths of brutality in the excesses of the French Revolution, Richard Holmes challenges the view that the subjectivity of Romanticism was consistently opposed to the objectivity of scientific advances. He explores what he defines as the “Age of Wonder”, the fertile and inspiring period involving discovery of the natural world through exploration, overseas and vertically into the heavens, and inventions in the use of energy, such as gas or electricity. This period is bounded by two famous voyages: Captain Cook’s expedition to Tahiti aboard the Endeavour starting in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s to the Galapagos Islands on the Beagle in 1831.

This fascinating and very readable book, which sets science in an intriguing social context and makes it accessible to a reader with little prior knowledge, is like a series of mini-biographies. It begins with Joseph Banks, who as an energetic and charismatic young self-taught botanist not only collected an impressive range of plants, but demonstrated broad-minded skill in living with the native Tahitians on equal terms, negotiating the crew’s way out of awkward situations with his flexibility – the lack of this no doubt led to Cook’s brutal murder on a subsequent voyage without Banks.

The next subject is William Herschel, again self-taught, who developed astronomy with his mapping of the heavens, and discoveries of the planet Uranus and numerous nebulae, assisted by his long-suffering and underestimated sister Caroline, “the tough little German” who painstakingly recorded his observations as he “kept his eye clear” by gazing without interruption into the telescopes he had constructed himself. Holmes shows us how Herschel’s work inspired Romantic poets like Shelley, Byron and Coleridge to include references to the moon and boundless universe in their work.

The development of balloons, starting with the Montgolfier, improbably made from paper and named after the wealthy manufacturer of that product, led to a mania for this type of transport which often ended in tragedy, and justified Joseph Banks’ reservations about its usefulness, in his important role in as President of the Royal Society, a talent-spotter and promoter of worthwhile scientific projects.

Humphrey Davy is also a major player, risking his life experimenting with nitrous oxide, the laughing gas which, seeming like the C18 equivalent of smoking pot, made Davy for a while the butt of mockery in the scurrilous press, although his discovery of the miner’s safety lamp was much admired.

Holmes ranges widely: the frequent rivalry between what were at first vaguely called “natural philosophers”, only recognised after heated debate as “scientists” from 1833; the attempts to interpret and popularise science for the public by writers including the mathematician Mary Somerville, at a time when women were only allowed to selected meetings of the “Literary and Philosophical” societies springing up round the country; the tendency to skirt round the issue that ongoing discoveries of astronomical “deep space” and geological “deep time” tended to threaten “safe religious belief” with “dangerous secular materialism” – for the “Age of Wonder” preceded the bombshell of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, not published until 1859.
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on 15 November 2015
The late 18th and early 19th Centuries saw science change our understanding of the world - the universe - we inhabit at a fundamental level. The Herschells mapped the stars, discovered new plaets and comets, and proved that our galaxy is just one of millions. Humphrey Davy discovered new elements and introduced us to the beginnings of electricity. Anatomists studied circulation, and wondered what particular form of electricity animated the human body - and the human soul. Balloonists conquered the skies thanks to science, and science influenced the Romantic poets too - Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Southey. Above it all sat the hugely influential Royal Society and the polymath Joseph Banks. And as a subtext underneath it all lay the studiously avoided question of God's role in all this, which came to the fore in the next generation of scientists.

Richard Holmes's book shows us this world, where science and the arts were not yet distinct but complementary. A world where people were both fascinated, repelled and terrified of these discoveries. A world which he portrays brilliantly. I'm not a scientist, but I understood all the science, and I found myself wanting to know more. The stars of this book, the men and women making all these discoveries, are drawn with affection that is not blinded by admiration, and in every case, the narrative ensures that the reader is aware of the wider context, the wider implications. It's a very close world in many ways, a world where it sometimes seems as if everyone corresponds with everyone else, or is a member of the same club, or is best friends with, or married to, another star.

This is a book that anyone interested in the age where the Englightenment gave way to the Romantics. It is a book whose successor I would love to read, though it seems it's not yet written. But hopefully soon. It's a book I'd highly recommend.
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on 26 February 2017
I bought this as a gift for a relative. I gleaned from the back of the book that it was of unrivalled interest, and vowed to get a copy for myself. I regret foisting this tome upon my cousin, (whom I might add, has thus far made no mention of this aberration). Upon first glance and after several attempts at it's contents, I can say without a doubt it is not an easy read, not that interesting (despite reviews to the contrary) and is quite hard to digest. Shame. Hope the Stephen Fry book I bought for another relative was much better.
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on 29 March 2009
There are plenty books written on modern science, exploration (geographical and scientific), fledgling scientific breakthroughs, romantic poetry, human psychology and biographies of major scientific protagonists (with all their vanities and petty jealousies, as well as their soft, fuzzy side) - but all this in ONE book? It's a masterpiece, beautifully written, wittily observed and carefully footnoted. Every page a delight.
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on 2 March 2010
I have got to 200 pages - fascinating, detailed reading so far of the lives and science of Banks and Hershel etc. And I am soon going to Slough - been through it, past it, many times and never thought would bother to visit Slough - but the work and lives in Slough of William and Caroline Hershel, the sites, the telescopes, their discoveries, their connections and relations, their houses, and marriage, etc., places Slough into new status I had not realised - even though one knew of the names and their scientific work. The book is very enticing to read - never yawn, facts are sticking for a change and one does not need to re read sections as one progresses through its fascination. Great book - wish I had had that at school in the 50s - how well literature of science has developed. Must now get back to the book .- which is far more interesting than the computer.
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on 28 December 2009
"The Age of Wonder" is a continuous collection of mini-biographies of men such as Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy, Herschel, Faraday ... scientists all - though they would be called that for many years - and yet also part of the literary fabric of the time, which the author, Richard Holmes, does not neglect. Not surprising since his previous books were about people like Coleridge and Shelly.

Dangerous experiments, long voyages, unrealised glimpses of great scientific truths, social triumph, literary celebration .... For example, we all know that Herschel discovered Uranus, but to be told that he also constructed his own reflector telescopes, painstakingly (and painfully) grinding his own mirrors adds a much needed human dimension to the history of scientific discovery.

At 500-odd pages including indexes etc it is a book to read in shortish bursts, and is organised to allow this. Thoroughly recommended, and on my shelves joins "The Fellowship" by John Gribbin (about the early history of the Royal Society), "The Map that Changed the World" by Simon Winchester (on William Smith and the first geological map of the country) and "Scurvy, by Stephen R Brown, about "the greatest medical mystery of the age of sail".
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on 17 November 2010
For those interested in how we know what we know, this is a fascinating book. The extraordinary fact that until the first manned balloons took off, no one had ever seen the world from above, and that was relatively recently. The speed with which discoveries occurred is remarkable. The certainty that the protagonists had that they would make new discoveries is also surprising. Although the stories are certainly interesting, the style is sometimes a little repetitive - phrases are reused and I sometimes found myself thinking I had already read a passage when in fact it was simply restating something said a few lines, paragraphs or pages before. All the same, very readable and a strong narrative - something I always look for in history.
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